The Real Rip Van Winkle
Patron saint of the Catskills, Rip Van Winkle has belonged to all America from the moment he was born, by passage through Washington Irving’s pen, in 1819. Only seven years later there was a Rip Van Winkle House along the road from Palenville to the nation’s first resort hotel, the Catskill Mountain House; in 1850 there was another Rip Van Winkle House on the corner of Pacific Wharf and Battery Street in San Francisco. Rip’s real-life presence was attested by nonagenarians who claimed to have known him and his virago Dame. Other Hudson Valley denizens claimed to have heard as children, whenever thunder rumbled in the mountains, the tale of Henrik Hudson and his gnomish bowlers, as if it were a folk tale eons old rather than Irving’s invention. Today Rip is more prevalent — perhaps more real — than ever, the figure for whom every writer grasps when trying to convey our era’s dizzying rate of change.
In 1872 William Cullen Bryant wrote, in Picturesque America: “As you climb up this steep road [to the Catskill Mountain House] ... here, by the side of a little stream, which trickles down the broad, flat surface of a large rock, is the shanty called “Rip Van Winkle’s House....”
In a June 1906 issue of 4 Track News, an overwrought Charles B. Wells wrote: “Rip’s ‘Village of Falling Water,’ Palenville, lies at the base and from the summit, looking far out over a field of fleecy cloud-tipped peaks, the gilded dome of the capitol at Albany tosses back the sparkling sunlight which glistens in the silvery Hudson below as though seeking to detain it in its mad onward rush to the pathless sea.”
In 1947 Rufus Rockwell Wilson, wrote, in New York in Literature: “Most of the dwellers in present-day Leeds are prompt in their denials that such a man as Rip Van Winkle ever lived in the town, but there is one wrinkled veteran, far spent in years who, if discreetly questioned, will tell you in confidence that were he again a lad he would lead you to the rock, a little way this side of Palenville, where Rip used to camp and sleep on his hunting trips.”
The real Rip is more interesting. Let’s hurtle back to the eighteenth century.
Washington Irving was born in New York in 1783, the year in which the American Revolution was won. In 1800 he made his first voyage up the Hudson. Writing of it long after, he said: “The Kaaterskill Mountains had the most witching effect on my boyish imagination. As we slowly floated along I lay on deck and watched them, through a long summer day, undergoing a thousand mutations under the magical effects of atmosphere.” Presumably he gathered up stories on his travels in the Valley, as he did on subsequent journeys to Canada and, in 1804-6, Europe. Upon his return he elected not to go into the law, even though he had been admitted to the bar. Instead he published, with his literary cohorts, the Salmagundi papers (1807) and, in 1809 as “Diedrich Knickerbocker,” a comic History of New-York that is fresh and funny today.
Flush from success on both sides of the Atlantic, he suffered a blow with the death of his fiancée, Matilda Hoffman; he was never to marry. A morose Irving entered the literary business, where his celebrity could not keep his Analectic Magazine from failing. In May 1815 he went to Europe and took charge of the family business in Liverpool, but in 1818 it failed too. He now had nothing on which he might capitalize but his fame: he had to write for a living.
Irving visited his admirer Walter Scott at Abbotsford and learned from him of the wealth of unused literary material in Scottish and especially German folk tales. Irving feverishly taught himself rudimentary German so that he might read (and borrow from) these tales. “Rip” met the light of day in May 1819 as the last sketch in the first installment of The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., No. I, published in New York by, oddly, C.S. Van Winkle. Six installments followed until in 1820 the publisher issued them all in one volume.
Today we might say that with The Sketch Book, which also included “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” Irving invented not only the American short story but the Catskills as a source of legend and enchantment. Yet even in his own day, Irving’s critics pointed out that some passages in “Rip Van Winkle” were not mere borrowings but in fact direct translations from the German of Otmar’s Volksagen, published in Bremen in 1800.
In a note appended to the legend, Diedrich Knickerbocker (among whose posthumous writings the tale was supposedly located by editor Geoffrey Crayon) informs us that he himself has talked with Rip Van Winkle, and that “the story, therefore, is beyond the possibility of doubt.” Crayon introduces this note by saying that without it one would suspect that the tale had been “suggested by a little German superstition about the Emperor Frederick der Rothbart and the Kyffhauser Mountain.” This clue led a generation of scholars off onto a Barbarossan snipe-hunt, as Rip Van Winkle is certainly not based on the legend of the Mountain King who would rise with his entombed army to defend his nation. Irving’s location was indeed the Kyffhauser Mountain, but his model was plainly Otmar’s Peter Klaus, described by Bayard Taylor in By-ways of Europe, 1869:
Peter Klaus, a shepherd of Sittendorf, pastured his herd on the Kyffhauser, and was in the habit of collecting the animals at the foot of an old ruined wall. He noticed that one of his goats regularly disappeared for some hours every day; and, finding that she went into an opening between two of the stones, he followed her. She led him into a vault, where she began eating grains of oats which fell from the ceiling. Over his head he heard the stamping and neighing of horses. Presently a squire in ancient armor appeared, and beckoned to him without speaking. He was led up stairs, across a court-yard, and into an open space in the mountain, sunken deep between rocky walls, where a company of knights, stern and silent were playing at bowls. Peter Klaus was directed by gestures to set up the pins, which he did in mortal fear, until the quality of a can of wine, placed at his elbow, stimulated his courage. Finally, after long service and many deep potations, he slept. When he awoke, he found himself lying among tall weeds, at the foot of the ruined wall. Herd and dog had disappeared; his clothes were in tatters, and a long beard hung upon his breast. He wandered back to the village, seeking his goats, and marveling thathe saw none but strange faces. The people gathered around him, and answered his questions, but each name he named was that upon a stone in the church-yard. Finally, a woman who seemed to be his wife pressed through the crowd, leading a wild-looking boy, and with a baby in her arms.
“What is your name?” he asked.
"And your father?”
“He was Peter Klaus, God rest his soul! who went up the Kyffhauser with his herd, twenty years ago, and has never been seen since."
Sound familiar? I won’t burden you with side-by-side German and English, but trust me, the congruency is shocking. When confronted by his critics, Irving seemed confused, responding that legends were for all to use, as writers of the past had done. Eventually he issued a sort of apology:
“In a note which follows that tale ['Rip Van Winkle'], I alluded to the superstition on which it is founded, and I thought a mere allusion was sufficient, as the tradition was so notorious as to be inserted in almost every collection of German legends. I had seen it myself in three. I could hardly have hoped, therefore, in the present age, when every ghost and goblin story is ransacked, that the origin of the tale would escape discovery. In fact I had considered popular traditions of the kind as fair foundations for authors of fiction to build upon, and made use of the one in question accordingly.”
Irving lived long enough to see his own invented and adapted legends become in turn the legends which others used for their tales and stories. And to be fair, sleeper tales went back far earlier and wider than that of Peter Klaus, to Scandinavia’s “Girl at the Troll Dance,” to Ireland’s Clough na Cuddy, to Japan’s “Urashima Taro,” and more. In an ancient Greek tale Epimenides, a shepherd, went to the mountains in search of stray sheep, fell asleep in a cave, and woke up 57 years later to find himself unrecognized by all until his youngest brother, now an old man, finally recognized him. And then there is Ulysses, who returned home after 20 years to be recognized only by his faithful dog Argus. And Woody Allen’s Sleeper. All, no matter how dimly, echo the greatest Resurrection story we know, which itself is the product of legend and fable from prior millennia.
But the mother lode for the Christian Era appears to be The Seven Sleepers of Ephesus, saints whose feast day is July 27. Maximian, Malchus, Martinian, Dionysius, John, Serapion, and Constantine ... these are the men who, in our next column, will wake to restore Irving to his pedestal. And Herman Melville, in a posthumous and little-known work, will arise once more to canonize, truly, our beloved Rip.